Walk This Way: how Run-DMC and Aerosmith changed pop

Walk this way

When Aerosmith manager Tim Collins answered his phone one day in early 1986, he was, at first, confused.

The voice on the other end belonged to Rick Rubin, the 22-year-old hip-hop producer and entrepreneur behind Def Jam, the fast-rising record label he had founded while still a film student at New York University. Rubin, a rock kid who’d grown up – or, rather, who hadn’t – on the gonzo kicks of AC/DC, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith themselves, wanted to talk to Collins about the idea of remaking his charges’ 1975 single Walk This Way with a rap group on his roster, Run-DMC. Before Rubin could go into any further detail, Collins cut him off to request a little clarification: “What’s rap?”

A more valid question, for most people in the mid-80s, might have been “What’s an Aerosmith?”. The suburban white kids who had once been the Boston band’s faithful constituency had matured and moved on. A new generation was turning instead towards exactly the hip-hop sounds that Rubin and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons were selling them.

Not that hip-hop had always been an easy sell. The rap records that reached radio listeners in the early years had a tendency, ever since the Sugarhill Gang’s breakthrough, Rapper’s Delight, to exude a novelty flavour, while turntablism, in real life the beating heart of the culture, tended to manifest itself only as a cheesy wikki-wikki add-on. And then there were the clothes. Oh dear God, the clothes. Seek out the extraordinary footage of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on Channel 4’s The Tube performing The Message, its pioneering gritty street-level content undermined by their superfly sci-fi costumes, which looked like they’d been raided from George Clinton’s tour bus seven years earlier.

The reputation of the entire genre was rescued by Run-DMC who, in the words of British writer Neil Kulkarni in The Periodic Table of Hip Hop, “made everything that had happened before them sound old-fashioned, too slick and smarmy”. The trio had roots in that clunky prehistory: Run (Joseph Simmons), the teenage brother of Russell Simmons, had previously DJed for Kurtis Blow, before forming his own band, originally called Orange Crush, with DMC (Darryl McDaniels) and DJ Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell). But everything changed in 1983 when the trio, renamed Run-DMC and still in their teens, released their debut single, It’s Like That, on Profile. That track – brutally blunt by the standards of the time – and its rival-dissing flipside, Sucker MCs, blew up on rap radio and changed the game for good. “Ultimately it took Run-DMC, with their black leather, sweats, homburgs and in-your-face attitude, to crystallise the image of toughness into rap chic,” wrote SH Fernando Jr in hip-hop history The New Beats. “Their attitude, like their beats, was hard. Their dress, unlike the extravagant leather, sequin and feather outfits of most rap acts at the time, reflected a street aesthetic to which the average b-boy on the corner could relate.”

Aerosmith, meanwhile, were in a slump. Album sales had steadily declined since their 70s peak, the band’s key members were ravaged by various addictions, and they hadn’t had a Billboard top 10 single since the original Walk This Way, a decade earlier. The song had first been recorded for the band’s Toys in the Attic album, and was born on tour when singer Steven Tyler, who had been listening to the Meters and James Brown, asked drummer Joey Kramer to lay down something with a little funk to it. (Run-DMC, therefore, were not so much appropriating Aerosmith’s groove for black culture as reclaiming it.) Guitarist Joe Perry added a simple but effective hook, and Tyler came up with a lewd loss-of-innocence lyric about a schoolboy getting caught masturbating by his father, who instructs him in the ways of seduction.

When it was time to record the track at New York’s Record Plant studio, it still needed a title and a chorus. Inspiration finally came to them when they took a break to walk a few blocks to Times Square to catch a movie. The film was Mel Brooks’s comedy Young Frankenstein, in which Marty Feldman’s Igor lurches and limps down some stone steps, then instructs Gene Wilder, playing the title role, to “walk this way”. In a classic sight gag, Wilder does exactly that.

By the time the Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration was mooted, Jam Master Jay had already been cutting Walk This Way back and forth between his decks for years, and Run had been rapping over it since he was 12. They weren’t the first act, though, to attempt a rap-rock hybrid. The Beastie Boys’ AC/DC-sampling Rock Hard and LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells – both Rick Rubin productions – had already walked that way, and Run-DMC themselves had released several trial runs, notably the Russell Simmons-produced Rock Box and the provocatively titled King of Rock, both featuring chunky riffing from session guitarist Eddie Martinez.

When Collins relayed Rubin’s offer to Tyler and Perry, they were initially sceptical, but went along to Magic Ventures studio in Manhattan on 9 March 1986 for the rate of $8,000 a day. And a day is all it took: Run-DMC had a rental car that was overdue for return, and needed to work fast. As Tyler recalled in Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, “Run and D and Jay were huddled in a corner, really intent on something. I go, ‘Joe, what are they doing?’ He says, ‘Probably smoking crack.’ Later we went over to the corner. They’d been eating lunch from McDonald’s.”

What Rick Rubin created with that day’s work still stands as an immortal party anthem, as liable to spark outbreaks of air-scratching as air-guitar among drunks unable to decide whether they want to be Jay or Joe as they lurched around (an ability to dance was optional for the enjoyment of Walk This Way). Tyler’s rapid-fire vocal was too slang-packed to be completely decipherable to British ears, but the bits about “feet flying up in the air”, a “kitty in the middle” and being “down on the muffin” left little doubt that it was thinly veiled filth.

And the video was one of the most literal in a decade not short of contenders. The two bands – the sleazy old rock slags and the box-fresh rap crew – are rehearsing in adjacent rooms and engaged in a loudness war, but join forces when Tyler literally smashes down the wall between the two rooms/races/genres, and the two groups storm a theatre stage to the delight of screaming fans. The clip instantly took Run-DMC into the MTV mainstream (the channel showed it twice an hour).

But which half of the hook-up were the real winners from Walk This Way? Who was doing a favour for whom? Rick Rubin had sold Aerosmith the idea as “a great crossover opportunity for both groups”, and so it proved. The received narrative is that the song broke Run-DMC and, by extension, rap, legitimising the genre in the eyes of white listeners, just as Eddie Van Halen’s solo on Beat It had done for Michael Jackson and black pop. It’s true that the single became the first rap single on Billboard’s Top 10 (peaking at No 4), that its parent album, Raising Hell, became rap’s first platinum LP, and that Run-DMC became the first rap act on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Arguably, however, Aerosmith benefited more. Run-DMC were unquestionably the hipper, cooler, younger, more current and relevant act (they’d been the only rap artists on the Live Aid bill the previous year), and the fact that the name Aerosmith appears nowhere on the label of the Run-DMC version of Walk This Way speaks volumes about the balance of power. Guesting on a Run-DMC single, albeit a cover of their own song, saved Aerosmith’s career. It got them on to the contemporary hits radio format for the first time, and achieved a different sort of crossover: if Run-DMC’s was racial, Aerosmith’s was generational. Kids whose contemporary poodle-rock heroes were Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses welcomed Tyler and Perry as elder statesmen, and their next album, Permanent Vacation, sold 5m copies (10 times more than its predecessor), while the next two did even better. It also made them a truly global band for the first time: Aerosmith, who had previously meant next to nothing in the UK, were suddenly household names.

Run-DMC, however, never quite consolidated that success, their cultural visibility in later years restricted to Jason Nevins remixes and reproduction T-shirts in H&M. Meanwhile, the success of Walk This Way paved the way for a trio of white youths – Beastie Boys – to sell a hip-hop/heavy metal hybrid back to the suburbs in even bigger quantities.

Rap Rock itself, once established as an ongoing genre, became a mixed blessing, initially throwing up fertile cross-pollinations such as Rage Against the Machine, Faith No More and Public Enemy’s collaboration with Anthrax, but eventually leading to such atrocities as Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park (though blaming Run-DMC for that is roughly as fair as blaming Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press for the existence of Katie Hopkins).

Nowadays, the sheer popularity of Walk This Way means serious hip-hop heads are often dismissive of its worth. But to put the needle on the vinyl, even at 30 years’ distance, is to hear worlds colliding, and walls tumbling down.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Simon Price, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th July 2016 17.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010